Reburial of exhumed bodies from Tulsa massacre sparks protests

Protesters railed against officials for not letting victims’ descendants play a larger role in the process in Tulsa

Residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma are in an uproar over the city’s reburial of remains believed to be of more than a dozen victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre that were excavated from the ground.

The Hill reports that protests took place on Friday outside of Oaklawn Cemetery, the site where bodies were exhumed. Demonstrators criticized officials for not allowing a funeral to be held for the victims first.

In 2020, Tulsa began the process of searching for bodies buried in unmarked graves in the aftermath of the 1921 massacre in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood.

Dubbed “Black Wall Street” for its financial prosperity and autonomy afforded to Black Americans, the neighborhood was destroyed by a white mob and, after a 2001 commission, it is believed that up to 300 Black men and women were killed, despite previous reports of only 36 deaths.

The Oaklawn Cemetery is seen on June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

According to the Washington Post, 35 coffins were found in an unmarked grave in the cemetery, and the remains of 19 bodies were taken in the excavation to be examined by forensic scientists.

One of the bodies found had numerous bullet wounds in his head and shoulders. According to Phoebe Stubblefield, the lead forensic anthropologist, a preliminary analysis was completed on nine bodies; five of the bodies were juvenile and one was a woman. All nine were of “African descent.”

The Public Oversight Committee elected to have the bodies temporarily placed back into the original graves until the full work is completed. The site was blocked off by fencing. This decision has angered some of Tulsa’s residence who believed the remains deserve proper burials and the victims’ descendants should be more involved in the process.

“We should have been included,” Heather Nash, a Tulsa resident, cried out, as reported by KWTV-DT. “We should have been able to stand on those graves and put our spirit in them with them in us.”

Another Tulsa resident, Joyce G. Smith-Williams, said, “The correct thing would have been if they were gonna have a ceremony to notify the community that there was gonna be a ceremony and to do it the right way: with pomp and circumstance.”

Stubblefield responded to the protesters’ complaints.

“We don’t have our people yet,” Stubblefield said, as reported by the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma news station. “We don’t have — we’ve got one probable. Two suspiciously buried. And that still leaves 15. We’re not done. We have not stopped.” 

The city issued a statement to explain the rationale behind reburying the bodies:

“The City remains committed to transparency during this investigation and are focused on fulfilling our commitment to this phase of work that is still underway, as we have for the past two years of the investigation,” the statement read.

The City of Tulsa moved forward with the reburial as planned today based on the proposal presented to the Public Oversight Committee and approved by the Committee on March 23, 2021, and as on-site forensic analysis, documentation and DNA sampling were complete.

The City also had to abide by the permit requirements that were filed with the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, stating the remains would be temporarily interred at Oaklawn Cemetery (an interment plan was required before moving forward with the excavation.) This fall, research experts will report their findings from the excavation and their recommendations for next steps in the investigation.” 

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